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Ken Hitchcock works for the Edmonton Oilers as an advisor but he’s also a hockey fan and when the Dallas Stars made it back to the Stanley Cup final for the first time in 20 years, there was a smile, and maybe a fist pump.
Hitchcock, whose 667-game run behind the Stars bench is longer than anybody else’s, was the Dallas coach the last time they were at the big dance in 2000. They lost to the New Jersey Devils in six games – the year after they won it all on Brett Hull’s disputed in-the-crease winner in overtime against Buffalo. So, Once a Star, Always a Star, and the same goes for current Oiler coach Dave Tippett, who ran their bench for 492 games over six seasons to form the second longest tenure.
Hitchcock’s 2000 Stars were the Grumpy Old Men — Guy Carbonneau, Derian Hatcher, Mike Keane, Kirk Muller — with the talent of Mike Modano and Hull and Sergei Zubov to go with the goalie making all the saves, Ed Belfour. The 2020 Stars have their 30somethings too: Joe Pavelski and Corey Perry, Blake Comeau and Andrej Sekera, all 34 or older. Then there’s steely-eyed captain Jamie Benn, who’s like a Western town sheriff, plus the wonderful talent of Miro Heiskanen, the artistry of John Klingberg on defence, the shooter Denis Gurianov, a deep four lines and a goalie battler Anton Khudobin.
Dallas has been good for years but hadn’t done enough to get this far.
“You have to knock on the door a few times before you get in,” said Hitchcock, “and I looked at the four teams that were left and they all check like hell and compete on every puck, and it’s a matter of who does it a bit better. There’s real common ground here. They compete at the puck at a high level. Everybody talks about Dallas’s defence. But, really, they check like hell.
“The farther you go in the playoffs, it’s the old saying: Will over skill. The teams that get to the final four are better in the small games within the game.”
Memo to the Oiler players who went out meekly in the qualification series to Chicago: There’s a difference between working hard and competing hard to get the puck back, but that’s a story for another day.
“Dallas confronts every puck and they’re determined in critical ice in both ends, in front of the net. The game comes down to who’s most competitive there and in the playoffs, it’s who controls the dots and the boards. First you stop goals from going in, then you win the net-front battles,” said Hitchcock. “Dallas did a good job in those areas.”
Vegas was out-numbered constantly along the boards, two-on-one, sometimes three-on-one, and while they unloaded shots on Khudobin, many were from outside. When the emotion of losing wears off, Vegas coach Pete DeBoer will rewind the tape and he’ll not only see that, he’ll acknowledge it.
“Teams that win, also need a reason to play. It’s like St. Louis last year with (Jordan) Binnington, they had the goalie come in and they played like hell for him. Now Dallas is doing the same for Khudobin. Lots in common between those two teams,” said Hitchcock.
“You’re also happy for guys like (Stars coach) Rick Bowness. You always want to see lifers get a chance at the Cup, too.” Like Hitchcock, who coached 1,598 league games and won it once in his two trips to the finals, three times losing in the conference finals.
Hitchcock is hugely impressed with Klingberg, whom he coached in Dallas in 2017-18, and Heiskanen.
“Klingberg reminds everybody associated with the late 90s Stars of Zubov,” said Hitchcock. “He’s got all of those patient qualities you love in a defenceman.”
And Heiskanen? Hitchcock sees in him his old junior defenceman, Scott Niedermayer.
“Heiskanen’s most dangerous when the game’s on the line because when you can turn him loose, he takes over the game. Scott played conservatively in New Jersey because they were leading so much of the time but as soon as they got behind, you needed unbelievable awareness of where he was because he was coming with the puck,” said Hitchcock.
“With Khudobin, you feel as players that you have to play so hard for him because he competes so hard for every puck. That was the same for Belfour with us, he never gave up on anything. Goalies like those two, it becomes contagious to fight for them.”
Tippett, who followed Hitchcock as Dallas head coach in 2002, has a soft spot for his old team, too.
“I’ve been associated with a few teams (Dallas, Arizona, Edmonton) but I have a few friends in Dallas and I’m happy for them, happy for Rick Bowness…he’s coached a long time and he’s such a good guy,” said Tippett.
“Dallas and Vegas was tight, tight but Dallas got the timely saves and the timely goals, the ones needed at the right time. Dallas is a very good, defending team. They’ve got four lines that can play in any situation. Benn really stepped up when Vegas wanted to push back, he was the guy who competed in those areas. Doesn’t hurt that they’ve got two superstar defencemen (Heiskanen and Klingberg), too.
“Heiskanen’s taken his game to another level and Klingberg has the puck a lot and defends with his mind. Lots of the best defenders do that, with their head not their brawn.”
On Twitter: @jimmathesonnhl
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